For the last week I’ve been watching Jagrup hold onto his last few dollars, going back to his SRO to cook for himself when he’s hungry, instead of buying a hot dog or a slice of pizza. What do people do when they’re broke? They start selling things they value or need – their medication, their grandmlother’s ring. They panhandle or beg. I know the overwhelming flood of feelings – frustration, panic and powerlessness – of being flat broke, and never want to experience it again. I’ve collected cigarette butts at bus stops in the middle of the night. Eventually desperation takes hold and you don’t care who sees you. But in some situations, you HAVE to have money, you can’t be broke if you have a kid or a pet. And everyone has a different version of what is honourable and what is humiliating. Some would rather steal than stand in a food line, and vice versa.
Jagrup was introduced to the Tuesday afternoon group at VANDU; when he asks to borrow money from the members who are going to get welfare on Wednesday, everybody laughed! It’s the 21st Century, but the class system still exists unofficially, with some marginalized groups seen as the Untouchables. They’re Vancouver’s Untouchables – the acronym VANDU stands for Drug Users. We told them Jagrup was binning on Saturday, and asked for experienced volunteers to show him how. The 2 who agreed were Scott Short, a father of 2 kids in foster care, who needs busfare to visit them, and Mervyn SmallLegs, who bins every day from 7:30 ’til dusk to pay for food, busfare and cigarettes. These men are hard-working “Front Line Eco-Warriors”, the name David from the Street Market gives them.
The weather was nasty at 9 am Saturday, “couldn’t make up its mind if it was going to rain or snow” Hugh from VANDU said. Despite this, Scott and Mervyn show up ready to take Jagrup binning. Scott has a stick for poking garbage bags to determine if they contain bottles or cans. The first time I saw a binner with a hockey stick, and no skates or equipment, I asked “where’s the game?” Now I know why he carried a hockey stick. Mervyn has on a plastic rain poncho and is wheeling a child’s stroller to carry his finds.
We headed east in the alleys, tailed by a cameraman from Shaw Cable. There was no dumpster DIVING, they were tall enough to be able to reach over the sides. We picked up a pair of shoes in good condition which Mervyn said he could sell at the street market for $2, and a plastic garbage can he was going to ask $5 for. They displayed what they’d collected at a press conference Raise the Rates had organized for 11 am. In dollar value the empties were worth less than minimum wage, and Jean Swanson made the argument that the Welfare System criminalizes a person on IA who bins for extra money, because of the clawback rule that says all income must be declared and deducted from the next check! Scott told us “binning keeps me out of jail” by providing him with money so he doesn’t have to do crime. This is PEANUTS compared to white collar crime like embezzlement, insider trading and bribery, yet the jails are full of poor people doing what they have to do to survive, and very few Conrad Blacks.
by Diane Wood